Recently, a friend needed a ride. Her car was having mechanical problems that required repair. Some little critters had gotten into her engine and nibbled on wires. My friend has no family members living nearby. I was delighted to help. Later, she told me how hard it was for her to ask. For me, the opportunity to help was the high point of my day. I have been listening to Thomas Moore’s book, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. He talks about how myths and fairy tales can inform one’s life by bringing enchantment. Because of my life-long passion for storytelling, I love to imagine that I am living an enchanted life. My friend’s need gave me the chance to play the role of the “helper,” the magical element of fairy tales. Let me explain:
I am thinking about how the theme of needing help––or helping––is a common human concern. Fairy tales illuminate universal themes and struggles. Many fairy tales address the idea of help and include the aspects of “help” we all encounter, such as:
· needing help
· asking for help
· giving help
· receiving help
I have been taking a fairy tale class with Dr. Muriel McMahon. She is a Jungian analyst and scholar. In a recent class, we examined the theme of help in the story, THE TALE OF BABA YAGA (THE RUSSIAN WITCH). As an introduction to the idea of “help” in fairy tales, Muriel shared a personal story:
A Canadian indigenous group wanted to revive ancient traditions and desired to create a Rite of Passage ceremony for four of their girls. Dr. McMahon––Muriel–– was invited to participate and be the “soul grandmother.” Her task was to build a sweat lodge. This would be used for ritual purification after the girls had spent four intensive days in a structure that was built for that purpose.
The Ceremonial Leader explained to Muriel, “You will build it yourself. If you need help, ask for it.” Muriel began building the sweat lodge and spent the whole day struggling with the materials. They were maple saplings, ties, and rocks. Finally, Muriel was finished and she felt very proud of herself for accomplishing the task. She went to where community members were gathered, expecting congratulations. But she was ignored. Finally, the Ceremonial Leader approached and scolded her. He said, “Why didn’t you ask the younger women in the community for help? Why did you build this on your own?” He told her she had denied the other women an opportunity. Muriel was upset, started to walk away and immediately caught herself. She sat down with the Ceremonial leader. He explained that the women would have grown with her, their “soul grandmother,” in building the sweat lodge as part of building their community.
Muriel’s story has inspired me to reflect on the challenges––and opportunities––involved in asking for help from others. Like my friend who needed a ride, I find it difficult to ask for help, although it is much easier to ask family members than others. Why is it difficult for us to ask? Why don’t we even think to ask?
I am reminded of an experience where I didn’t think to ask for help. I had traveled to the west coast of Florida for a weeklong workshop. It was held in a mansion that had been converted to accommodate staff and participants. For the last activity of the week, we were divided into groups. Our task was to thoroughly clean an assigned area of the building in a specific amount of time. The underlying idea was to get the house ready for the next group that would be coming in after we left. The activity was set up as a competition. Somehow, I was selected as the leader of a group. I worked hard to inspire and direct my group and, of course, to participate in the cleaning. There was one group that had done a better job in the time allotted. Their leader had asked staff members to clean with them. With the extra help, that group came in first. It had never dawned on me to recruit others to help, let alone staff. It was a brilliant activity from the perspective of the sponsoring organization. Like Muriel’s story, it was also about service to the community. And, the group that asked the staff for help modeled the idea of thinking outside the box.
Looking at help from the perspective of helpers in fairy tales, I am thinking of a story my sister-in-law, Linda, related. She was working on her MA in counseling at Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. She said they had talked in a class about how many fairy tale protagonists, both male and female, are helped by others. The helpers are often non-human beings. They may be animals and insects and sometimes even objects. One thing the protagonists have in common is they usually extend kindness to the helpers. In many cases, they sleep while the animals and/or insects do all the work. The helpers are able to complete what had seemed to be an impossible task.
Such was the pattern in the fairy tale we read and discussed in Muriel’s class. In THE TALE OF BABA YAGA (THE RUSSIAN WITCH), a cruel stepmother wants to get rid of her step-daughter, Natasha. The stepmother sends her to Baba Yaga, the infamous witch. Natasha is to ask for a needle and thread in order to sew a shirt. The girl knows the stepmother already has a needle and thread, and she suspects the stepmother is sending her to her demise.
Natasha approaches Baba Yaga’s hut. It sits on chicken legs that move around. The yard is surrounded by a fence the posts of which have skulls propped on top. she extends kindnesses to the squeaky gate, the dog, the servant girl, and a cat. Once she is in the witch’s hut, Baba Yaga orders her servant to boil water and take it to the bathhouse so that Natasha can bathe. Natasha knows she’s in trouble. Baba Yaga is planning on boiling and eating her! How will she get out of this mess? Well, Baba Yaga’s cat is the first to help her escape. The girl had already made friends with the hungry cat by sharing a bit of cheese with her. So, the cat is happy to help Natasha flee followed by the servant girl, the dog, and the gate.
My sister-in-law related that the point the teacher in her class was making was that many times there are helpers in the client’s environments. “Yes, look for helpers out there. It seems that people often enjoy helping.” I have noticed how often people just begin helping––without being asked. There are many reasons why the act of helping can be satisfying. I think it is just the gratification that a helper receives when their behavior has made a difference in another’s life. It may also be because the task is interesting and fun in itself.
Recently, I was in a genealogy class. The class was exploring the 1950 census that had come out a short time ago. My father’s name could not be found on the census. A number of classmates put aside their own research and became involved in solving the mystery of my father’s missing name. Some classmates who were home on Zoom even became involved. A good mystery is always hard to resist. The man on one side of me was excited when he located my father’s employer. Eventually, the problem was solved. The proper street name was not on the census.
Also, I remember a time when I was a teacher of high school seniors. There was a boy who wasn’t going to graduate because he owed a final project. He had experienced a block related to this assignment. He had suffered a personal trauma and just could not face doing the research for this science project. The whole class got together to help him with the task. The students collected research for him. The support offered by his classmates allowed the young man to break through his block. Part of the project entailed his making a presentation. When the project was at that point, they all gathered around and assured him that no matter what happened, they were there to support him. He realized he was not alone, but part of a supportive community where help could come in surprising ways. The project was fun for everyone. The whole class relished the satisfaction of seeing their classmate graduate with them.
The wisdom of fairy tales is that help is out there and can come in mysterious ways. Having faith that help is available is the magic. Do you remember a time when you were helped, and it seemed to come almost magically? Perhaps you were able to help someone who was stuck and overwhelmed, and you felt good about what you were able to do? I’d love to hear your stories of helping and being helped.
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